Normally I don’t mind when people are infatuated with celebrity gossip stories. Granted, I would rather have people talking about more important issues like the war in Iraq, but it’s endearing to know that celebrities are real people with problems too. And when those problems are like Anna Nicole Smith’s untimely death and the ensuing paternity battle or Britney Spears’s impromptu haircut, they are interesting and, God forbid, maybe even amusing.
But Paris Hilton and her adventures at the Los Angeles County Jail are different. Hilton’s story provided a media opportunity more important than the ordinary celebrity shenanigans that grace the headlines everyday. For once, millions of Americans were on the brink of being exposed to the unfair and brutal realities of country’s prison systems, but what followed was coverage that devolved into a melodrama about celebrity privilege and public outrage. Instead of using Hilton’s trivial story as a platform to educate an interested audience, the media treated it as a spectacle.
Although the frenzy that followed Hilton’s release from jail on Thursday would make anyone think otherwise, maybe – just maybe – releasing the socialite who everyone loves to hate from jail and putting her on a restrictive probation was the right thing to do. At the very least, Hilton could possibly have valid medical concerns. The heiress is currently taking psychotropic medications and has a history of depression and anxiety. Additionally, she has not eaten since returning to jail and has been moved to the medical ward out of concern for her health.
The fact that the public practically started to gather up its pitchforks and lanterns for an old-fashioned mob riot doesn’t change these concerns. And the fact that other prisoners have more serious medical concerns and are still incarcerated doesn’t justify keeping her in prison either. If nothing else, Hilton’s release only proves that more prisoners should be receiving similar medical releases. The reality is that prisons are not hospitals or asylums.
Although it’s easy to forget, roughly one in every 32 Americans is either in prison, on parole or on probation, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics calculated in 2005. Of those people who are incarcerated, more than half reported symptoms of mental illness in 2006. According to a 1999 study, roughly one-sixth have medical concerns not related to colds, injuries or surgeries. This includes more than 23,000 prisoners with HIV/AIDS. Just like the situation on the outside, these medical concerns are only made worse by the aging of the population.
And in the same way that regular people with cancer, hepatitis, diabetes or mental illnesses require expensive and continuous care, so do prisoners. But what prisoners usually receive is something closer to negligence.
California’s corrections system is a good example of this. In one 2004 incident, a prisoner receiving dialysis removed his shunt. While the patient screamed for help, it was reported that the prison’s guards were too busy watching the Super Bowl to come to his aid and the patient bled to death. This incident was one of many that led to a federal class-action lawsuit that found California’s prison system to be so deplorable that it violates the minimal benchmarks of the Eighth Amendment.
But how many of the news stories about Hilton mentioned these realities?
I don’t mind that Hilton was released from prison. For once, the justice system may have been using other available options to get prisoners the care they need and to ease the drain on taxpayers, who provide these prisoners with their expensive medical care. It’s just sad that using these options had to come in such a shady way.
But more importantly, I was hoping that Hilton’s “celebrity privilege” would be extended to more of America’s ill inmates. After Hilton was brought back to jail literally kicking and screaming, there doesn’t seem like there is much hope for that.
-Gary Graca is the summer editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.